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The Book Of Dave
Will Self
Penguin paperback £7.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Will Self may masquerade as a mainstream literary figure but, after years of dropping hints, there can now be no doubt: Will Self is a science fiction writer. He's tried to mask it for a while, by writing humane and intelligent novels about desperation and the world of ordinary madness, but The Book Of Dave puts him firmly in scanner range of science fiction. The Book Of Dave is only the latest lapse into science fictionism by Self. His earlier novel Great Apes played with the idea of The Planet Of The Apes, although taking its lead from the sober Pierre Boulle novel rather than the pulpy (but excellent) movie series. His short-story collections are sprinkled with stories that would not be out of place in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction or Asimov's SF, particularly The Quantity Theory Of Insanity (from the volume of the same name) and Caring, Sharing from Tough, Tough Toys For Tough, Tough Boys.

The Book Of Dave is a post-apocalyptic novel, with the world brought to its knees in this case by rising water levels caused by global warming. In a future England, the Ing Archipelago, humanity lives in a new dark age following a religion known as Davism, based on a collection of aphorisms and mysterious 'calls' - in fact, litanies of London taxi routes - found on a set of ancient engraved metal tablets, 'The Book of Dave'. Davism is a harsh religion - the sexes are separated and women are ruthlessly subjugated, children are brought up separately by the Mummies and the Daddies (the book's terms), and diversion from the most literal interpretations of the Davist creed is punished brutally by the fundamentalist church fathers.

It follows the progress of Carl, a young Ham islander who hates the Davist regime. He is the son of Simon the Geezer, a wild prophet who spoke of finding a second Book of Dave deep in the Forbidden Zone of Ham. His teachings were ruthlessly repressed by the church fathers, who sent out a Driver (who views his congregation through a head-mounted rear-view mirror) to suppress the rebellious islanders. Eventually, Carl flees the island with his non-conformist teacher to find out what happened to Simon after he was removed from the island, travelling eventually as far as New London on the Island of Nott.

From the above summary, it would be easy to dismiss this as another book by a mainstream wannabe with no knowledge of the genre post-1960 - possibly you're already shouting 'A Canticle for Liebowitz!' at the screen. Post-catastrophe civilisation misinterpreting modern documents as religious texts is one of those creaky old ideas in the back of the SF attic. In particular this one had a very English flavour, evoking John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, 2000 AD's 'Nemesis the Warlock' and The Tripods series by John Christopher. Self even provides a map in the front and a glossary of Mokni, the nad-sat like slang used by the inhabitants of the Ing Archipelago. This obsession with world building - what M. John Harrison calls "the clumping foot of nerdism" - is what pushes The Book Of Dave hard into the territory of science fiction.

However, Self retains his mainstream credentials, as the novel also tells the story of Dave Rudman, the London cabbie who wrote 'The Book of Dave' in the 1990s and early 2000s. Dave is a pathetic figure whose divorce and separation from his child have pushed him into depression and psychosis. The contemporary sections of the book follow the events of Dave's life and how they contributed to Davism, and Self uses them as a counterpoint to the events in the future (or perhaps the future world is a counterpoint to the story of Dave, it works either way). Self isn't above drawing parallels between the situation on Ham and the actions of fundamentalists of all stripes active in the world today, and doesn't flinch from depicting the gross miseries they inflict on their flocks, far from it. But this is almost incidental to the portrayal of the struggle going on in Dave's head as he tries to figure out how to live with dignity in a world that seems determined to humiliate him at every turn.

The miserable lot of the Ham islanders, and the inhabitants of Ing Archipelago, is a reflection of Dave's own distress - his inability to get on with the women in his life, his hostile isolation from anyone in the world and the painful separation from his own son. The struggle to be a man in the modern world pushes Dave into a mental collapse, and at times the two strands of the novel mix, as Dave has visions of the future and the denizens of the future occasionally make contact with Dave. This isn't the only suggestion that the future being depicted exists only in Dave's head, but Self plays a neat guessing game that leaves us unsure how literally to take the future.

Self's targets are broad, and his sense of humour is violent, scatological and blacker than black, but he paints the world in fine, realistic strokes. The flooded England of the future is as vivid and real as contemporary London, and Self never loses sight of the people inhabiting his world, never allowing them to become mere ciphers or mouthpieces for his satirical message. He is particularly good at finding the voices for his characters, who speak with the crackling veracity of complete, thinking creatures no matter how broadly satirical their role. He is wise and forgiving of Dave's problems, and avoids portraying anyone in Dave's life as a villain. Self understands the complexity of human relations, how we do wrong when we try to do right and the messy situations that arise as we try and please ourselves without hurting others.

Self's work most obviously echoes the crypto SF of J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs, but one can also see traces of Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Spinrad and John Brunner, and Dave's struggles with women and reality are not a million miles away from Philip K. Dick. Hell, if Christopher Priest or Jon Courtenay Grimwood had written this, it would have been one of the books of the year. Maybe we'll never see Will Self nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award, but The Book Of Dave shows again that he is clearly 'one of us', despite his seamless mainstream disguise.
The Book Of Dave by Will Self

Will Self's Book Of Dave

The Book Of Dave



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